Analysis: It's all about how Notre Dame moves on

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — DeShone Kizer, hours before his first collegiate start, claimed on Twitter that eminent Notre Dame alumnus Regis Philbin slapped him in the face to get the redshirt freshman quarterback fired up for Saturday’s showdown with Georgia Tech.

Which Kizer seemed to enjoy, even though it might have horrified Irish head coach Brian Kelly, given his lack of luck with season-ending injuries he’s had to deal with in the past six weeks.

Stranger things have happened? Less, than 24 hours later, one actually did.

Sophomore safety Drue Tranquill, in the midst of his most impactful college game to date and his first start of the season, dove to break up a potential TD pass in the end zone late in the first half of ND’s 30-22 stifling of Georgia Tech on Saturday.

He then rose to celebrate with a teammate, leaped in the air and watched his season and right knee simultaneously crumple.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder, a versatile regular in ND’s niche defensive packages, will have surgery on the knee in approximately two weeks, per Kelly, a season after an ACL tear in Tranquill’s left knee truncated his 2014 season.

“What do you say about a kid that gets up and chest bumps and doesn't turn his ankle, but he tears his ACL?” said Kelly, who already had lost five starters since mid-August to season-ending injuries. “I mean, I don't know what to say anymore.”

Here’s what Tranquill, a man of deep and open faith, had to say on his Twitter account, Sunday: “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, (because) you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance #DailyDose.”

And perseverance has become the overriding theme of this Irish team (3-0), which climbed a couple of spots to sixth in the AP poll on Sunday and moved up to eighth in the coaches poll.

Put the “Culture Beats Scheme” T-shirts, potholders and collectible plates on clearance. It’s all about Moving On now.

It’s not nearly as catchy and may not pass through the copyright filters, but it’s certainly functional. Here’s how that might unfold on a number of fronts, starting with Saturday’s home matchup with pass-happy UMass (0-2).

The Road Ahead: Notre Dame is seventh in the latest Sagarin ratings, still a bit skewed by lack of data so far. And here’s how the Sagarin computer sees ND’s 12 opponents from best to worst:

USC is No. 6 — yes, even after losing by 10 at home to Stanford on Saturday night. Next is Georgia Tech at 9, Stanford 11, Clemson 15, Pitt 52, Texas 53, Temple 56, Boston College 57, Navy 59, Virginia 63, Wake Forest 94 and UMass 145.

Sagarin ranks all 253 FBS and FCS teams together, which explains how Saturday’s opponent’s ranking exceeds the number of teams in the FBS.

UMass is the anti-Georgia Tech, ranked 121st among the 127 charted FBS teams nationally in rushing offense, but 19th in passing offense. Only USC (12th) among ND’s opponents has a higher passing offense ranking.

But all 11 have better team pass-efficiency ratings than UMass’ No. 95 standing, and all 11 do better on third-down conversions than UMass’ standing of 124th.

Looking further down the road, only one of ND’s remaining opponents — USC (12th) — ranks in the top 45 in the FBS in total offense in national stats, which are skewed by uneven competition. The Irish, however, play five teams that currently rank in the top 45 in total defense — Clemson 12th, Pitt 22nd, Wake Forest ninth, Boston College first and Stanford 33rd.

BC actually ranks first nationally in rushing defense and pass-efficiency defense as well, with a No. 2 rating in scoring defense, No. 7 in sacks and No. 9 in tackles for loss, coupled with the nation’s No. 109 offense, which Friday lost its starting quarterback, Darius Wade, for the rest of the season with a broken ankle.

Former BC Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie’s nephew, redshirt freshman Troy Flutie, is now in the mix with true freshman Jeff Smith.

It’ll be interesting to see if BC’s defensive numbers hold up, especially coupled with what’s expected to be a laboring offense. The Eagles have played two FCS teams — and two very bad ones at that (Sagarin No. 244, Howard, No. 181 Maine) — though they did hold Florida State and former Irish quarterback Everett Golson to seven offensive points and 217 total yards in a 14-0 Seminole survival on Friday night.

USC, meanwhile, is 80th in total defense, and that’s with Arkansas State and Idaho factored in.

Stanford’s 41-31 victory over the Trojans Saturday night in Los Angeles helped puff up the Cardinal’s national profile for now, something that could benefit Notre Dame if it gets into and remains in the national playoff picture in November, when back-end loaded schedules for competing teams could come into play.

Curing the Triple-Option Hangover: ND’s victory over then No. 14 Georgia Tech on Saturday is Kelly’s eighth successive win over a triple-option team while at ND, following a debut 35-17 humbling from Navy in East Rutherford, N.J., in 2010.

The aftermaths haven’t been quite so kind as the 8-1 bottom line. The Irish under Kelly are 4-4 in games immediately following matchups with triple-option teams, with the widest margin of victory in those four wins being a 24-17 edging of Wake Forest on the road in 2011.

It also includes a 20-17 escape of Purdue in the 12-0 regular season of 2012.

“I think first and foremost, getting back into the routine that you kind of lose, your practice routine,” Kelly said of the mental and physical challenges of getting back to defending conventional offenses.

“You don't go against each other (No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense). So just getting back to that routine, that's very, very important.

“And then just, again, the mind-set of how to play. Now, we were pretty aggressive defensively (against Georgia Tech), which I think will help us coming back this week against UMass. I think that's very, very important.”

Kelly invested in not only facing the option, but smoothly transitioning out of it, this offseason like never before.

Not only did that include extensive research from staff analyst Bob Elliott, a former Irish assistant, and a scheme that attacked cut blocks rather than surviving them, Kelly created a special offensive unit to simulate the offensive looks the Irish were likely to see against Georgia Tech on Saturday and Navy on Oct. 10.

It’s a mixture of scholarship players and walk-ons, collectively called the SWAG team, which stands for Students With Attitude and Game.

The groups comprises Miles Boykin, Austin Webster, Cam Bryan, Corey Holmes, Omar Hunter, Buster Sheridan, Jalen Guyton, Robert Regan, Nolan Henry, Justin Brent, Josh Anderson, Ben Suttman, Keenan Centlivre, Austin Ross, Bailey Ross, John Montelus, Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge, Jimmy Byrne and Sam Bush.

Kelly regularly coached the unit himself for short intervals to “set the tone of the importance of the unit.”

“It was after last year and feeling like I wanted to have something year-round that we could keep operational,” Kelly said of when the idea struck him. “Working really through the winter, through spring ball, in the summer, I wanted a unit that could continue, because option is going to be part of our future, playing against option teams.”

The Safety Dance: What was one of the deepest position groups on the team, safety, is showing signs of erosion.

Tranquill joins grad Avery Sebastian as strong safeties on the sidelines, though Kelly said Sunday that Sebastian could return in as soon as two weeks. He underwent surgery on a broken bone in his foot on Sept. 7, two days after making his Irish debut against Texas.

Starting free safety Max Redfield missed the Georgia Tech game in part, Kelly said, because of the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option scheme and in part because he didn’t play well Sept. 12 against Virginia with a cast protecting the broken thumb he suffered in the Sept. 5 opener.

Kelly wants to see if Redfield plays with a better comfort level with the cast in practice this week before reinstating him to the lineup.

Matthias Farley replaced Tranquill in Saturday’s game and played exceptionally well, with four tackles and a forced fumble, and he is in the mix to replace Tranquill in niche packages as are senior Nicky Baratti and freshman Nicco Fertitta.

Quick Hits: Kelly told former Irish coach Lou Holtz Friday in an interview on SiriusXM radio that he planned to work true freshman Brandon Wimbush into the Georgia Tech game “to get the glaze out his eyes.”

Tech’s late rally foiled those plans.

“I know talking to Brandon, we want to get him in as soon as we can,” Kelly said Sunday. “Eventually he's going to have to get in the game, so the sooner, the better.”

• After getting dinged for four illegal procedure penalties at home in the Sept. 5 opener with Texas, Notre Dame racked up four more Saturday at home against Georgia Tech.

Kelly attributed the latest run of offensive line infractions to a combination of a louder stadium (due in part to increased acoustics brought on by the stadium expansion) and a change in cadence from former starter Malik Zaire to Kizer.

“He kind of elongated his cadence sometimes, with some pressures and movement in front of him, and the guys just weren't used to it, quite frankly,” Kelly said of the first-time starter. “Got to clean that up, and I know we can get that corrected for next week.”

• Freshman kicker Justin Yoon missed an extra point try Saturday and is 10-of-11 for the season on PATs, but he did make a 29-yard field goal. He’s 4-of-6 so far on those.

“He's a freshman kicker that is going to go through some ups and downs,” Kelly assessed. “But I like his demeanor. He doesn't get rattled. He's still working the big jump from AAA to the big-boy league.

“There's some nerves there. He's a great worker. His attention to detail is excellent. I only see him getting better and better as a kicker.”

He’s been better than the opposition. Opposing kickers are 1-of-5 against the Irish this season, with Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker missing both of his tries (30 and 43 yards) on Saturday.

• Kizer is two pass attempts short of the minimum required to qualify for the national pass-efficiency ratings.

If he did, his 150.1 rating would be good enough for 37th place — eight spots behind former Irish quarterback Everett Golson (now at Florida State) and 22 spots ahead of ex-ND QB Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati).

Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones is 84th.

As a team, the Irish are 15th nationally in pass efficiency.

Meanwhile, junior wide receiver Will Fuller seventh in the country in receiving yards per game (132.3) and tied for first in touchdown receptions (5).

Senior running back C.J. Prosise is up to sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game (150.3). He’s 11th in yards per carry (7.64)


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame Brian Kelly and the Irish take the field before the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech game on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)